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Bullying Against Adults Has Risen

What you absolutely must know and do to protect yourself.

Just before the 2019 Super Bowl between the Rams and Patriots, the New England quarterback Tom Brady appeared in a news conference with a young boy who asked, “What do we do about haters?” Brady replied with a beaming smile and words of a champion, “You love them. We don’t hate. You love them and wish them a good life.”

Has Bullying Become a National Epidemic?

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e., sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
If you're being bullied, don't silence yourself and don't let it continue.
Source: Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

You might think bullying is something that only children have to worry about. And with all the media attention, you might even think it’s a behavior that has waned. But let’s look at the alarming statistics.

An older 2008 poll on workplace bullying found that 75 percent of employees reported being affected as either a target or a witness. And a 2019 survey found that nearly 94 percent out of 2,081 employees said they had been bullied in the workplace. That’s a huge increase (19 percent) in the last 11 years. Over half (51.1 percent) in the survey said a boss or manager bullied them. The ways the respondents said they were bullied were aggressive email tones (23.3 percent), co-workers’ negative gossip (20.2 percent), and someone yelling at them (17.8 percent).

The American Psychological Association found that 75 percent of the workforce said their bosses are the most stressful part of their jobs. And other studies showed that a toxic boss is the top reason employees leave their positions. Workers report that they don’t trust their supervisors enough to reveal personal challenges, such as mental illness, marital problems, or childcare issues. They fear bosses might treat them differently, question their ability to function in their position, discriminate against them, or pass them over for promotions and pay raises.

A Gallup poll showed that 45 percent of U.S. workers experienced some form of discrimination or harassment in the past year. A whopping 70 percent of the American workforce (85 percent worldwide) said they hate their jobs, usually because of a toxic boss.

At Nulab, Danielle Bramley, Media Relations Associate, and her research team studied over 1,000 people to explore conflicts in the workplace. A total of 88 percent cite that co-worker conflicts impact their stress levels, and over 70 percent say conflict impacts job concentration and productivity. The behaviors causing the greatest numbers of workplace conflicts are having an attitude (68.2 percent), being disrespectful to others (56.1 percent), and having others do their job (45.4 percent). A total of 82 percent of workers report conflict with a co-worker getting hostile at least once. And one in five cites conflict as a major impetus on their desire to find another job.

Dr. Reetu Sandhu, Manager at Limeade Institute—which keeps a pulse on the latest employee well-being and engagement research and trends—says work performance doesn’t have to come at the expense of mental and physical health and wellness. Dr. Sandhu insists it’s about creating a humane work environment:

“Since mental health is a core part of who we are as human beings, employers who want to care for their employees can’t ignore mental health. We also know there is a connection between work and well-being. Work can be a source of purpose, passion, and energy—or it can be a source of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. These experiences can either have positive or negative influences on our mental health. Similarly, our mental health can impact how we think, feel, and perform at work.”

The fact that nearly four out of 10 professionals have been bullied by a co-worker is a startling statistic. If you’re among the majority who have been bullied, it’s important to look at why and how it happened. A closer examination can reveal that bullying can be covert, not as overt as someone yelling at you.

Sometimes workplace bullying is difficult to detect because it happens within the covert structure of the company. Plus, bullies are often high-functioning employees, valued and supported because they bring high-dollar to the organization.

Work Shouldn’t Hurt: Take Action

If you’re being bullied or witnessing it at work or anywhere else, don’t silence yourself and don’t let it continue. Say something right away with the following actions:

  • Call attention to the bully’s actions directly, calmly, and professionally.
  • If it continues, start documenting the episodes in writing and start a file of who, when, and where the abuse occurs. Save emails or other correspondence that reflect cyber-bullying or that verify other types of bullying.
  • Although bullying isn’t illegal, you can find out if your company has a policy against harassment or abuse. Being able to cite specific taboos about bullying in your employee handbook strengthens your case.
  • If it still continues, speak to your boss (as long as he or she isn’t the bully) or HR department (as long as it isn’t part of the organizational rule compliance structure). If all else fails, consult an attorney who can give you the legal advice you might need on how to handle bullying. Or check out the helplines and websites below:

Workplace Bullying Institute: Provides information on tutorials and actions you can take if you’re a bullying target or witness.

The Cybersmile Foundation: Committed to tackling all forms of digital abuse, harassment, and online bullying, Cybersmile offers expert support, resources, and consulting to individuals, corporations, and educational institutions.

Stop Bullying Now Hotline (USA): Supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the helpline is available 24/7: 800-273-8255.

  • If you come up empty-handed, and the bullying persists, it might be time to start looking for another job. You have the power to find a company that’s the right fit for you: a humane environment, boss and co-workers who respect you (rather than belittle or ignore you), open and positive office culture and camaraderie, clear job responsibilities, equitable pay and benefits, and flexible work arrangements.

A Final Word on Bullying

The good news is that companies are starting to realize that when they allow bullying or cyberbullying to continue, it hurts their bottom line. Workplace performance drops. And minimizing, covering up, or turning heads the other way creates a toxic culture—compromising the company’s integrity. They have trouble recruiting and retaining the best employees, resulting in a revolving door as workers leave for a more humane workplace.

More from Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D.
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